Moabing in Moab, Utah

Moab, Utah, lays in a narrow, north-south valley sandwiched between the foothills of the La Sal mountains and the Moab Rim, a red mass of layered sandstone rising a thousand feet above. The core of the town consists of twenty or so blocks strung along State Highway 191, a two lane that is busy 24/7 because few routes go north and south in Utah, where the middle of the state is dominated by some of the most rugged and spectacular geography in North America.

When you drive in miday, you are in a procession of semi-trucks pulling mining contraptions, SUVs bristling with hard core mountain bikes or kayaks, long shiny campers with nicknames like Wanderlust , Subaru Outbacks packed with camping gear, hugh pickups hauling a trailer with multiple-ATVs, and battered pickup trucks loaded with hay. You pass a hodgdepodge of rock shops, motels, motorcycle shops, mountain bike shops, junk food and organic food restaurants, the obligatory Native American arts and crafts store, and a funky store with crystal curtains that looks like head shop.

The mix of hand-painted and neon signage gives you the feeling that the zoning rules are pretty lax, hinting at a frontier, libertarian bent, not the strict order you'd expect in a place with such deep Mormon roots. This may be a resort, but it ain't fru-fru; you won't see any Aspen Insitutute or Sante Fe Ballet here, or meetings of the World Bank. Moab can be very hot, windy and dusty and freezing during the winter. Like all places with a view in the West, some fancy second homes have popped up in the last decade, but not many. Probably too hard to keep them clean, and there is only one golf course.

I first learned about it many years ago from Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire, in which he described the austere beauty of the canyon country and high desert. After reading about it, it took years to finally visit, but once I did, I've been drawn to it ever since. And when in Moab, I always pay a visit to Back of Beyond Books, which has a great collection of Abbey books (and sort of a shrine to him when you first come in the front door), maps, hiking and biking books, environmental books, and western history.

Moab epitomizes the two cultures that co-exist, with varying degrees of success, in rural resorts in the West: the nature lovers and adventurers with mountain bikes, rafts, and hiking shoes and the motor nuts with ATVs, monster wheel jeeps, and motorized trail bikes. Moab has large and well organized contigents of both. You might say it gives Moab some economic diversity. I think the two cultures get along fine because most visitors don't spend that much time in town, and there are vast expanses for the two cultures to avoid each other. You want to avoid Moab during the annual Jeep Safari in April when the town is overrun by every 4-wheel congifuration known to man. They caravan up every nook and cranny and have contests to see if they can crawl over steep rocks without rolling down. When they roll down and smash their rigs, they then spend all night outside your motel room drinking Bud Lite and welding the broken pieces back together. They next day they head back to the slickrock, leaving smashed beer cans and pools of oil and grease all over the parking lot.

For a TOJ, most times of the year Moab is a paradise. There is great trail running and mountain biking. Moab is best known for the Slick Rock Trail, which is very challenging and, except for the most skilled and well equipped TOJs, potentially dangerous. On some days the Slick Rock Trail feels as crowded and hyper as Breckenridge ski resort on Xmas day. But there are hundreds and hundreds of miles of trails and roads both in the national parks and other public areas outside of Moab. I've found the Falcon series of hiking and biking books very reliable, as well as the Latitude 40 maps, which you can online at or find in many outdoor gear shops.

You spend limited time in Moab because it's a long drive into Arches and Canyonlands, truly among the wonders of the world. There is so much to see and do outside the town, which is why you go there, and travelling back and forth consumes most of your day. But Moab is a perfect base camp for your adventures, and you can still enjoy resort amenities like good food (try the Peace Tree for wraps and smoothies or Miguel's Baja Grill for Mexican food) or good beer (try the Moab Brewery).

Moab is a place that deserves to be a verb. It's a place where you go to do things in the outdoors, not just hang out. We just visited there for a few days. I got to run on a back road in a howling wind that drove red sand into my ears, mouth, and eyes, and to wander amidst the towering slabs of Entrada Sandstone in Arches that make you think about deep time. It was great. I was Moabing.

1 comment:

Tony said...

Definitely stay away from Moab during jeep safari..we decided to try it once after many years of avoiding the thing. People that really enjoy Moab for Moab and off-roading for the sake of off-roading instead of the parties don't go during safari!